William Curtis and the London Botanic Garden

V0001410 William Curtis. Stipple engraving by W. Evans, 1802.The first challenge with any new research project is working out exactly where to start.

I knew three things about the apothecary, William Curtis (1746-1799):

1. He was plant demonstrator at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

2.He had a botanic garden in London.

3. He was the instigator of a popular journal which became known as Curtis’ Botanical Magazine and the author of the Flora Londinensis

This limited knowledge made Curtis and his garden seem like an appropriate place to start when looking at the connections between medical knowledge, plants and science in the eighteenth-century, which is the focus of my newly begun Wellcome Fellowship.

After some archive trawling and reading around, it became clear that this was indeed a good place to start. It transpires that there were at least 3 botanic gardens in some way associated with Curtis. One at Lambeth Marsh (on the site of today’s Southbank complex), one in Brompton and a later one established by his successor, Mr Salisbury in Sloane Street, Chelsea. These gardens were also far more than repositories for plants that could be used in medical teaching and practice, as they included areas dedicated to specifically to plants related to agriculture, including whole beds for grasses, and libraries of garden books.IMG_2448

Curtis in his Proposals for Opening by Subscription a Botanic Garden to be Called the London Botanic Garden (1778 – this is the second garden in Brompton) declares in the title that it is designed for the ‘use of the Physician, the Apothecary, the student in Physic, the scientific Farmer, the Botanist (particularly the English Botanist,) the lover of Flowers and the Public in General’. This establishes that he intended the garden to be a wide reaching resource. One of the main reasons given for the importance of botanical knowledge within the proposal is unsurprisingly related to the practice of medicine although he does acknowledge the rise of chemical based treatments and their threat to botanical understanding amongst medical practitioners. He also claims that botanical knowledge ‘may be applied with as much advantage to agriculture as to any other science’, and goes on to say that he hopes the garden will ‘become productive of national utility’. Other texts of his include one on grasses which shows how interested he was in agricultural improvements through botanical experimentation.

Thomas Faulkner in his history of Chelsea (1810), suggested that to some extent Curtis reached his aim as he described how the garden, ‘first established by the late Mr. W. Curtis, the author of the Botanical Magazine, at Lambeth Marsh, in the year 1771, before which time no public garden upon a similar plan had been formed in this country; and … it has contributed to the knowledge of the indigenous plants from which our agriculture has been essentially promoted’.

Geranium botanical magazine curtisThis desire to educate a wide audience seems to stem from the fact that access to other educational gardens was limited to specific groups. Faulkner wrote that ‘as a knowledge of vegetables could not be obtained without a garden where the plants might be grown and occasionally examined; and although an establishment of this nature had been made at both universities, and Sir Hans Sloane had so liberally contributed to the establishing that of the Apothecaries at Chelsea, yet few had access to them; neither was the arrangement of plants made so as to afford a sufficient opportunity of ascertaining with facility such facts as were necessary to further progress. Mr. Curtis, therefore, under the auspices of the Hon. Daines Barrington, Mr. Thomas White, and other gentlemen, undertook its formation; and he had the satisfaction to find his labour repaid, not only in a pecuniary view, but in seeing the study of plants become a fashionable pursuit; and his favourite science of botany, which had hitherto been considered only as an appendage to physic, in some measure become part of the polite education of the gentry; a pleasure peculiarly interesting to him, under the idea that he had been instrumental in introducing it to the notice of the public.’

There are obviously a number of themes that can be explored here including the relationship between specialist botanical knowledge as held by medical practitioners and the agricultural improvements of the eighteenth-century, and the desire to make such knowledge available to wider audiences. Also the inception of the botanic garden as an educational resource available to the public, as well as a living collection of plants, pre-dates, but has parallels with, the emergence of institutions such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1817). Anyway, I have a feeling that this is a rich seam to be explored and will keep me busy for the next three years!


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